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Mental health the focus of budget hearing for public safety agencies 

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Public safety officials laid out their plans for making mental health a priority in 2023 during a city-county council committee budget hearing Aug. 31.

That includes a new division dedicated to mental health, a mental health crisis response team and coordinating with dispatch to figure out when a police response isn’t necessary. 

Under the proposed budget for next year, the Office of Public Health and Safety would add a Mental Health Division that would house the crisis response team. The division would also have its own deputy director dedicated to mental health programing. 

Though the division wouldn’t start until 2023, OPHS Director Lauren Rodriguez said the office is trying to prepare some of the logistics now, including adding a clinician to emergency dispatch to make sure dispatch gets codes right for mental health calls. There will also be two people hired to listen to past calls for key words that should tell dispatchers it’s a mental health call. 

RELATED: ‘It takes a lot of energy and will’: Parents of Herman Whitfield III open up about son’s in-custody death

The office’s total proposed budget in 2023 is about $21.5 million, with about $4.5 million for the Mental Health Division. Currently there is no exact timeline on when the response team could start, but Rodriguez said she hopes to have a pilot program ready for “early” in the year. 

Tom Sellas, chief of the Metropolitan Emergency Services Agency, which operates the county’s 911 emergency dispatch system, said the agency is working with IMPD, Eskenazi Health, Faith in Indiana and other groups to develop better ways to respond to 911 calls with a behavioral health component that don’t require a police response. 

The city has worked with groups including Faith in Indiana to set up the crisis response team pilot. The issue became more urgent after the death of Herman Whitfield III, who died in police custody in April during an apparent mental health crisis. 

Whitfield’s mother, Gladys Whitfield, spoke at the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee budget hearing and said she appreciates the focus on a crisis response team but reiterated the family’s demands, including having the officers who were involved fired and charged. 

One of the challenges for OPHS brought up at the hearing is that a deputy director for the Mental Health Division will have a tall task coordinating efforts from the federal, state and local government, along with nonprofits. Rodriguez said the office is working with a local clinician to figure out how to recruit the right person. 

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department also presented its budget to the committee. IMPD’s total proposed budget, about $313 million, represents 22% of the city-county budget. 

IMPD is consistently budgeted for more officers than the department has, so to get more, the budget includes an increase for starting salary, bonuses for officers and signing bonuses for new officers. As of Aug. 31, IMPD’s staff was at 1,595, with about 200 unfilled positions. 

In all, the proposed 2023 budget includes more than $300 million for public safety, a record for the city. 

Council committees will continue to host budget hearings through early October. 

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or email tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick. 

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